Vladimir Putin is not nearly as clever as American liberals like to believe. His meddling in the 2016 election backfired, after all — spectacularly. The Kremlin did not expect Donald Trump to win, just as no one in Washington did. If Trump had lost, the Kremlin’s gambit would have paid off: stolen emails would have damaged America’s newly elected president as she faced a hostile, Republican-controlled House and Senate. She could hardly expect cooperation from them on Russian sanctions or anything else, and the GOP could be counted on to react to another Democratic administration by adopting an oppositional foreign policy. Moscow would keep up its charm offensive toward conservative Christians and gun owners and tough American measures toward Russia would be thwarted, or at least complicated. The play took logical advantage of the fundamental dynamics of American politics itself — the separation of powers, the two-party system, the culture war, distrust of the media, and the influence of conservative activists on Republican legislators.
Such neat planning is characteristic of many a failed foreign intervention, as we Americans ought to know — how many neat ideas did George W. Bush’s boys have about the dynamics of the Middle East? Or the Bill Clinton team about how admitting China to the WTO would bring democracy to Beijing?
Putin’s plan was at least plausible — except that he fundamentally misunderstood the foreign public he wanted to manipulate. Instead of a weak, anti-Russia Clinton with a hostile Congress, America’s voters gave Putin a weak pro-Russia Trump with a hostile media and a terribly embarrassed Congress. Measures designed to hobble Clinton now created a scandal that hobbled a president who would have liked to reset relations with Moscow. Putin scored an own-goal.
So US-Russia relations have been worse under Trump than they were under Obama, and worse than they might have been under Hillary Clinton. Congress is hawkish, Trump is besieged, and the press is howling for a fresh Cold War — maybe even a hot one over Ukraine. None of this would have happened if the Kremlin had not intervened and Trump had won — the American president would be stronger, Republicans would be following his lead on Russia, and the press would be training its fire on some other part of the administration’s agenda. Moscow’s blunder could be as self-destructive as any that Bush or Obama committed in the Arab world.
The perils involved in US-Russia misunderstandings are of the highest order of magnitude. There are the obvious risks involved in hostility between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers. And Washington, like Moscow, needs to be careful what it wishes for: Putin’s is not the worst possible regime in a country where 70 percent of the public finds a lot to like in Josef Stalin.
Indeed, Americans are woefully uninformed about the climate of opinion in Russia, especially within that country’s elite. An observer who has recently spent time there tells of three current schools of thought toward relations with America. The one that might, for now, be called the establishment believes in patience over confrontation, on the theory that America, with federal elections every two years, is incapable of pursuing a policy as steadily sustained as one set by a Russian leader who stays in office for 20 years. Putin has held power since 2000 —including his time as prime minister — and has dealt with four American presidents in that time.
The establishment ‘patience’ camp is the one that blundered in 2016. It’s under increasing pressure from Russia’s confrontationists.
The hawks over there predicate their attitude on the same unsafe assumption as America’s congressional hawks — they believe the other side just won’t fight when put to the test. The Russian establishment understands that the US is a superior military power, and so cunning must take the place of direct confrontation. The confrontationists believe that America’s moral cowardice, bred by the softness of life under liberalism, more than offsets whatever advantage she has in arms. These Russians misunderstand America even more badly than the Kremlin establishment does — America’s decision-makers may often be personally soft, but they aren’t the ones who have to do the fighting. They can live out their Roman Empire fantasies by putting other Americans’ necks on the line. The Americans who voluntarily joined the armed forces are not lacking in courage.
The failure of hawks in both countries to appreciate how confrontational their counterparts are is the kind of blindness that leads to conflicts of the World War One variety — and scale.
The final Russian foreign-relations camp is forlorn. Russian liberals are tolerated in a very few places of prestige, but they wield no power. The liberals have a business mentality, and they would prefer to see their country integrate with the American-led economic order, even if it means shelving Russia’s concerns about its periphery and regime security. How much lost investment is Crimea worth? What price Putin? But the economic concerns that move the Kremlin are not those that the liberals care about, and the Russian public has a history of choosing other values above economic liberalism — whose name in any case is blackened by the economic exploitation that characterized the Yeltsin years.
Are these schools of thought really an accurate sketch of elite Russian attitudes toward foreign relations with America? They may be true in broad outline, but we would do well to avoid the error of thinking we know enough to predict what any faction will do — let alone all of them together. Putin made that mistake with us in 2016, and he and Russia are still paying the price.